Tropical Storm Lee was drenching New Orleans on Sunday as the Southern city, inundated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, faced a test of its flood defenses from the slow-moving system.
Rainfall topped 12 inches (30 cm) in parts of the New Orleans metropolitan area. The storm was inching toward the marshy Louisiana coast and was forecast to dump up to 20 inches (51 cm) of rain to southeast Louisiana over the next few days.
The storm center was about 85 miles (137 km) west-southwest of Morgan City, with maximum winds of 50 mph (80 kph). Winds were expected to stay below the 74-mph (119-kph) threshold of hurricane strength as the storm crawls ashore.
In New Orleans, a major U.S. tourist destination, the storm evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage. Half the city, a major U.S. tourist destination, lies below sea level and is protected by a system of levees and flood gates.
The levees had pumped away about 8 inches (20 cm) of rain so far, with isolated reports of flooding in roads and homes. The system can process about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rainfall per hour, but the storm's slow-moving nature remained a worry, officials said.
"Don't go to sleep on this storm," Mayor Mitch Landrieu told residents, warning stormy conditions could continue for the next 36 hours.
New Orleans is under a flash flood watch through Monday night due to heavy rain potential, the National Weather Service said. Potential damage from wind gusts up to 50 mph (80 kph) will also be a concern for New Orleans on Sunday as Lee's center moves inland, it said.
No injuries or deaths were reported in Louisiana, but rough waters off Galveston Island in Texas led to the drowning death of a 34-year-old man, an island official said.
Lee's tidal surge could spur coastal flooding in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before drenching a large swath of the Southeast and Appalachian regions next week.
Storm winds were already pushing Gulf waters inland, slamming barriers in low-lying areas and prompting mandatory evacuations in the coastal communities of Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria.
In Mississippi, local governments were taking precautions as forecasters predicted tides could be 2 feet to 4 feet (0.7 to 1.2 metres) above normal.
About 8,000 houses were without electrical power due to the storm, down from about 35,000 earlier on Saturday, according to utility Entergy Corp.
Over 60 percent of U.S. offshore oil production, all based in the Gulf of Mexico, and nearly 55 percent of offshore gas production were shut as of Friday, according to the U.S. government. Most of that output should quickly return once the storm passes.
Major offshore producers like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp and BP Plc shut down platforms and evacuated staff earlier this week.
Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Corp started to return workers to offshore platforms in the western Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.
Low-lying refineries in Louisiana that collectively account for 12 percent of U.S. refining capacity were watching the storm closely, but reported no disruptions.
ConocoPhillips' 247,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Alliance, Louisiana, 25 miles (40 km) south of New Orleans, was operating normally as Lee moved overhead, the company said.
In the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia weakened to a tropical storm on Saturday and was forecast to wobble back and forth between hurricane and tropical storm strength far from land, the hurricane center said.
ReutersLast Mod: 04 Eylül 2011, 12:00